Risk of concussions may effect participation

By Marc Katz

Jeff Graham piled up 542 receptions during an 11-year NFL career, gaining more than 8,000 yards and scoring 30 touchdowns.

He also figures he suffered only one concussion in college, at Ohio State, and, “Maybe 5-10 in the NFL, just had my bell rung. You see stars. The protocol then – and I’m not looking for no pity party, is you’d go and you’d have to remember a list of 4-5 words, the president, a state, a color.”

And then you’d go back in the game and play.

With the Super Bowl concluding the most recent football season, safety remains a topic of discussion, even in the off-season.

“I know I’m probably affected by it,” said Graham, coach of Trotwood-Madison High School’s state championship team. “Sometimes I forget things, like directions, and names of people. I know a lot of people, and I’ll remember them, but not their names.

“Sometimes, I get little headaches, like a few times a week.”

Following lawsuits settled by the NFL and the players, Graham went to Houston last summer to be tested by NFL doctors for memory loss and other brain-related injuries. He has a brain scan every year to monitor results.

Doctors are looking for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is as ominous as it sounds, and even led to a book written for middle-school kids, Lone Stars, by acclaimed New York sports columnist Mike Lupica, who has written a shelf of books, none with this serious a subject.

All this talk has led to a nation-wide reduction in the number of youngsters participating in football – the National Association of State High School Federations said 2017 participation was down 3.5 percent over a five-year period, and Pop Warner youth football dipped even more – but officials are not just standing around lamenting their predicament.

Advances in equipment – particularly helmets – tackling techniques and practice procedures are in a continuing state of change.

Some players are willing to take the chance they won’t get hurt; others don’t like the odds.

One, Dayton’s Chris Borland, even quit after his first season as an NFL linebacker, citing a possible debilitating head injury as the reason.

Borland was an All-State star at Alter High School, then an All-America at Wisconsin. He was drafted by San Francisco in 2014 in the third round and outperformed even those lofty expectations in his rookie season.

Still, he quit the game – returning much of his signing bonus in the process. His aggressive style of play, he read, might lead to head trauma in the future.

“It was a combination of a number of things,” Borland said in television interviews at the time. “I’ve done research. For me, it wasn’t worth the risk. Not to say it was a certainty.”

How football survives could depend as much on new, well-stuffed helmets, or how many mothers are willing to let their children play at a younger age.

Lupica thinks the mothers will have a big say. If parents prevent their kids from playing in Pee Wee and other leagues before high school, and high schools find their roster numbers diminished, colleges will also find it difficult to assemble high quality teams, which in turn affects the NFL.

“The biggest threat to the League (NFL) are moms,” said Lupica during a book tour last fall. “They have to let little Johnny play football.”

The book is about a high school player attached to his coach, Monty Cooper, a former NFL player, who is suffering from the early stages of what is believed to be CTE, as well as badly damaged knees.

It could mirror the story of Graham, who augments his post-playing years as a Dayton businessman and Trotwood coach.

In a not-so scientific study, four Dayton area coaches (including Graham) were questioned about the affect of CTE news on football participation in high school.

Alter’s Ed Domsitz, Jim Place, recently retired head coach at Ponitz and retired coach Pat Masters of Meadowdale all said they started their coaching careers when making head-first tackles was taught, and with helmets that didn’t always offer full protection.

Head-first tackling went away in the 1980s, but not like today.

“We’re down a little bit in numbers,” Domsitz said, adding, “There needs to be additional research to what happens to kids who play.”

Domsitz makes the point most kids don’t go on to play college football and very few advance to the pros.

“There is no question, if you’re good enough to make the NFL, the game is more violent,” Domsitz said. “I think it’s the constant contact of a 10-11-12-year playing career at that level that could cause a problem.

At Ponitz last fall, Place says he had not yet seen fewer kids try out for football, but he had been coaching since 1969, when, “the first point of contact for a tackle was with your head.

“I was taught to slam my head in there, so I told my kids to slam their heads in there. That was really stupid.”

Graham says he fields more questions from parents than he used to, but hasn’t seen a major drop in participation.

Masters has been out of coaching since 1994 and remembers the ill-fitting helmet problem, and much smaller players. He thinks football participation should come as late as junior high.

He also says he thinks football will survive.

“I always think the best athletes are going to gravitate to football, baseball and basketball,” Masters said.

If they do, it will be on a safer path.

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Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at KatzCopsNSports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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